“Don’t be cynical.”
I’m being chastised by Sam Barclay, the ringmaster and hype man of Major League Eating—or the MLE, as competitors and the equally obsessed call it.
If you’ve ever witnessed an eating competition up-close, cynicism isn’t a valid reaction. I try to assure Barclay that good ol’ American shock and/or awe are the only two acceptable responses, but it’s his job to hyperbolize and mine to bask in wonder, especially at this time of year.
The Fourth of July is the competitive eating world’s Christmas, and Barclay its tireless Santa. Each year, Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest, an MLE-sanctioned event, takes place at New York’s Coney Island boardwalk. It airs on ESPN. Competitive eating is treated like the sport that it is. Eaters are introduced as tickers scroll beneath their faces, citing bizarre statistics. One year, while I was working at a local bar’s (defunct) hot dog eating competition, the Nathan’s contest played on all our televisions and I swear some dude’s claim to fame appeared as “Mixed Seafood Champion of the World,” followed immediately by a tiny woman who had “eaten 12 percent of her body weight in cheesecake.”
Is that what competitive eaters do for the other 364 days of the year?
Meet Ethan Teske, age 30. This born-and-raised Minnesotan has accumulated quite a record of eating according to EatFeats.com, such as having been the first recorded human to conquer Angry Taco’s five-pound burrito challenge at Rosedale’s Revolution Hall. At a June MLE event at Fortune Bay Resort and Casino in Tower, Minnesota, Teske placed sixth in his field, downing six pounds of wild rice hotdish in just eight minutes and taking home $100 in prize money.
Barclay’s account of the day was Homeric. “By the grace of god, Miki Sudo [of Las Vegas] set a new world record in Wild Rice Hotdish,” he effervesced. “She’s the number-six ranked eater in the world, combined men and women, number-one ranked woman, and current World Champion in Ice Cream—16.5 pints of ice cream in six minutes.”
In this off-season, exactly how many people showed up for what amounts to a uniquely Minnesotan, world-class competition held on the shores of stunning Lake Vermillion? By Barclay’s estimate, “Approximately 10,000. Anywhere from a handful to ten thousand.” When I couldn’t contain my laughter, he pumped the brakes. “About 100,” he finally conceded.
Teske, in contrast, portrays his achievements with a more human level of excitation. “I always tell people competitive eating is kind of like professional wrestling. There’ll be the stars, and the underdogs,” explains Teske. “Eaters like to talk a lot of smack to each other, but it’s all just friendly banter.”
He considers himself part of the nation’s “independent scene,” a position that lets him be “unsigned” and therefore free to compete in non-MLE events, yet friendly with the organization and its roster of stars. The way he describes it, there are two veins of competitive eating: food challenges, like those based in local restaurants a la Man v. Food , and timed eating contests, such as MLE’s Fortune Bay event and the one at Coney Island. Teske does both (and does them well), but in terms of goals within the eating world, he isn’t so jazzed about hoovering dogs on the boardwalk.
“Different competitive eaters have different goals in mind. The Nathan’s Hot Dog Contest is essentially the Super Bowl of competitive eating. Some people get to go there every year, some people would love to go there. Like, I think it would be fun, but I wouldn’t say it’s an overall goal.” Instead he says, “I’d like to get food challenge wins in all 50 states.”
Teske pulls double duty in the workforce, and travels a lot for his job. When not working in pest control, he’s a member of the Minnesota Army National Guard. “My job in the military is... a cook.”
He regularly makes the food he scarfs, in the same volume. “If you ever randomly need 180 pounds of hotdish, I’m your guy.” For better or worse, this allows him to see where a food goes wrong, and he feels it. “One of the worst parts, for me, of competitive eating is having to deal with terrible food. Like when you take that first bite and instantly regret your decision to do that contest or challenge. Usually that’s not a problem, but sometimes it is.”
The wild rice hotdish at Fortune Bay was one of these situations, and not only according to Teske. Darrien Thomas, MLE’s number-one ranked eater in Canada, tied for fourth in the event by stomaching eight pounds of the chunky stuff, before writing on Instagram that this particular hotdish was “a lot harder to eat than expected.”
Barclay said he tasted the hotdish himself. “I had a small bite.” Ever the MLE partyman, he claimed it “made me want to be from Minnesota, and have a Minnesotan grandmother.” At the mention of Thomas’ suggestion that the food proved “harder” than anticipated, Barclay went low. “Perhaps the gentleman in question lacks the moral courage necessary to tackle hotdish.”
For those with the moral fiber of a competitive eater, Minnesota’s next major eating competition comes in November, when the MLE heads back to Fortune Bay for its annual World Indian Taco Eating Championship. Registration will be open to those signed to the MLE, as well as plucky young upstarts like Teske... or you.
Best start training now. Last year’s winner housed 30.5 fry bread tacos in eight minutes.